Not much is written about Survivor’s Guilt when it comes to cancer and chronic illness. When I think of Survivor’s Guilt my mind goes to war veterans or people who lived through 911 or Hurricane Katrina. I’ve discovered that Childhood Cancer is its own kind of traumatic event.
It’s been 11 years since I sat in that tiny, windowless room, where I watched the pediatric oncologist walk in, sit next to me and quietly say “It is round, blue-cell sarcoma. Your son has cancer.”
From that moment until now, I've known the death of many children; children just like my son. I have absorbed each death and carried it with me. How could I not? My son survived and their sons/daughters did not. Same treatment, same doctors, same prayers uttered to God.
Therein lays my dilemma.
Instead of asking “Why me?”, Survivor’s Guilt asks “Why not me?” I wonder what makes me more deserving than the other cancer mom whose child did not live. Now throw in the belief of a Triune God, who is touted as being good, and the randomness of which child lives and which child dies into the mix.
I end up with confusion, guilt and an underlying feeling of unworthiness.
As I read about Survivor’s Guilt; hoping to understand my mixed emotions, I read: “ it piles on the unconscious thought that luck” (God’s goodness) “is a zero sum game. To have luck” (God’s healing) “is to deprive another of it. The anguish of guilt, its sheer pain, is a way of sharing some of the ill fate (God not healing the other children). It is a form of empathic distress.” The definition of Empathetic Distress is feeling the perceived pain of another person and transforming it into empathic anger, feelings of injustice, or guilt.
Subconsciously, I see God choosing me and my son, over the other moms and their children who did not live. I am no more spiritual, good, or worthy of my son’s life than they are of their children’s lives. And because God chose to heal my kid, I should (that shame word, again from my last post) jump up and down for joy and yet I can’t. If I celebrate my son’s life then it feels as if I am taunting the other mothers, implying my God loves me and my son more than them. And yet, I am so grateful!
It feels like a confusing weight and at times, I am tempted to disown God altogether.
I also read that Survivor’s Guilt possibly exists to help us find meaning and make sense out of the experience. This is what I want most: meaning and understanding. Survivor’s Guilt can also be a way of expressing a connection to those who have died. This is undeniable to me. I feel very connected to each child I have known. Most importantly, Survivor’s Guilt can co-exist with other feelings, like gratitude and relief.
Phew! It is ok to feel both.
In my Spiritual Formation class, we’ve been discussing how our western culture is an “Either/Or” mindset. We don’t like paradox. It has to be one or the other. It is black or it is white. Eastern cultures, on the other hand, tend to be a “Both/And” culture. It is both this and that. This makes more sense to me, now. I feel both gratitude and guilt. My son lived. Their children did not.
I carry their loss of life and my thankfulness for my son together. I always will.
As humans, we all have a skewed view of God (if you believe in God). We see things through our individual lenses. I know Survivor’s Guilt has been a block for me with God. When I try to see God through an “Either/Or” lens, I want nothing to do with God.
But when I experience God through a “Both/And” lens, I feel peace.
God is a mystery. God is “Both/And.” I am made in God’s image; therefore, I am a mystery. I feel both grateful and guilty.
I chose to embrace the mystery. Gratitude and Guilt.